With yet another dreary made-for-TV “debate” (and the scare quotes are truly appropriate here, because these are most assuredly not debates) in the books for the Democratic presidential candidates, and with the Iowa caucuses now less than three weeks away, commentators are intensifying their “soul of the Democratic Party” analyses and weighing in on the party’s center-right versus center-left schism that has become especially pronounced in the past year.
That is not to say that the intra-party differences have not been there all along, but the prospect of facing such a weak and beatable candidate as Donald Trump—who has always had chronically low approval ratings and shows no interest in even trying to appeal to the majority of Americans who do not rabidly idolize him—has raised the stakes considerably for the Democrats’ factions.
One might have predicted (even hoped) that unseating a historically corrupt and incompetent incumbent would have unified the Democrats, because they have every reason to believe that every single one of their candidates (including the growing number who have dropped out of the race) would not only have been better at the job of President than Trump but would have been much more popular as well.
In that scenario, the early months of the nominating contest would have been devoted not to attacking each other but to sounding out ideas and themes and seeing who emerges as the strongest and most popular candidate. Then, setting aside whatever policy differences divide them—differences that are nothing in comparison to the threat that a second Trump term poses—the Democrats would quickly come together behind whoever looks like a winner.
But that did not happen, with sustained and even ugly attacks against some candidates and with a party that often seems unable to agree on anything. What happened?
The Logic of Consensus is Overcome by High Stakes
The problem is not with the Democrats but with the logic behind the idea of settling quickly on a winner. With everyone believing deep down that Trump will lose badly (notwithstanding frequent wailing and garment-rending about how “this only helps Trump”), the Democratic nominating process necessarily becomes a defining moment in which the party’s center-right and center-left factions—there being no actual “leftist” party or faction in the United States—fight to the death to benefit from Trump’s unpopularity.
To be clear, this is always true of a party’s nominating process, to a degree. The stakes are high in every presidential election, and it matters whether the Democrats nominate, say, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Although those two candidates’ actual differences were quite modest, they still represented two different paths forward for the party. Naturally, the fight was fierce.
This time was supposed to be different because of the unique threat that Trump poses to the very future of constitutional democracy. Democrats were apparently supposed to say, “We’re all terrified of Trump winning, so we can’t do anything but be unified at all times.” Instead, everyone quickly realized (consciously or not) that a defining election is going to empower the winner in ways that will last for generations.
After all, when Trump loses (and assuming, contrary to my predictions, that he actually leaves office peacefully), the Democrats will be the party that elected the person who saved us all from the most dangerous demagogue that the world has seen in decades. If that new Democratic President is a milquetoast incrementalist, that approach will not only become the default mode for the new administration, but it will be credited as part of the magic elixir that dumped Trump. If, instead, the Democrats win with a candidate who preaches fundamental change, then it will quickly become conventional wisdom that “the people wanted an end to business as usual.”
Again, that is always true in presidential elections, but it is a matter of degree. The Democrats know that their nominee, whoever she or he is, will be the savior of democracy and the rule of law; and everything else that she or he stands for will then benefit from the winner’s glow. Talk about a mandate from the people! Who could help but care which Democrat fills that role?
Moreover, in the normal course of things, there is a risk for a party’s factions of being associated with a loser. Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 tarred the conservative movement as politically toxic until Ronald Reagan’s unlikely win in 1980, and in turn Walter Mondale’s drubbing at Reagan’s hands four years later convinced right-leaning Democrats that they had to find an “electable” candidate. Eight years later, they found Bill “the triangulator” Clinton.
In 2020, however, although the post-election bloodletting will be ugly if Trump actually wins (even if the win is hugely tainted by voter suppression and Russian disinformation), everyone will have much bigger things to worry about. While the Democratic faction that did not win the nominating fight will be able to say, “We would have won if our preferred candidate had been nominated,” what good will it do even if people believe them?
The 2024 election (in which, to be clear, Trump might insist on running for a third term) will not be winnable for any Democrat, because a second Trump term will be devoted to turning the United States into a one-party state, with sham elections and no real threat of effective opposition. Although there is a risk that being on the side of the nominee who lost in 2020 will empower the other side of the Democratic Party going forward, all Democrats will be permanently neutered by the Republicans anyway. Why should any faction among the Democrats worry about the future of intraparty politics?
In short, the Democrats’ 2020 nominating contest is being pulled in different directions by the same thing: the fear of a continuation of the Trump presidency. That fear makes Democrats want to unify, but it also makes them want their faction to win the nomination, knowing that there is an unimaginably large upside to winning and no post-2020 downside to losing (as a matter of losing relative power, since the entire party will become powerless).
Clearly, the experience of the past year has shown us that Democrats have been doing a heroic job of reminding themselves of the importance of unity, but they cannot help but be pulled in the direction of fighting for the soul of their party.
The Center-Right Freakout Over Warren
Last month, I wrote a column in which I noted that Democratic voters do not actually seem to care about the center-right/center-left differences in the party. Very convincing and surprising polling research showed that rank-and-file Democrats are perfectly willing to swap out candidates from one faction for the other. For example, Joe Biden—Mr. Center-Right himself—has supporters who would overwhelmingly choose center-lefters Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over Biden’s youthful avatar Pete Buttigieg.
In that column, however, I wrote something that was at best misleading and at worst confused, concluding from the polling data that “it is nice to see evidence that the Democrats truly are unified on policy issues — and, by the way, taking positions on all of those issues that are very, very popular.”
But the fact is that the party’s officeholders and leaders are not at all unified on policy issues. It is the party’s voters who are largely unified, and as I have argued previously here on Verdict (here and here), they are largely in agreement that the party should move to the left on policy. Indeed, when I say that left-leaning policies are “very, very popular,” I mean that they are popular among all voters, not just Democratic primary voters. Center-rightism is simply not very popular (and conservatism is actually not at all popular, which is why Republicans have to suppress votes and invite foreign meddling to win elections).
One would have thought that Senator Warren is an ideal candidate for the Democrats. Indeed, she might yet win the nomination, and pundits like New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg make a good case that Warren ought to be a “unity candidate.” She is incredibly smart and hard-working, she is resilient in the face of attacks (surely a plus in a race against the Trump slime machine), she is a woman who can easily fend off Republican sexism and use it to her advantage, and her policy views line up very nicely with actual voters.
Moreover, Warren clearly won the 2019 pre-primary “Is this really a strong candidate?” contest. Even starting from behind (due to her unfortunate initial mishandling of Trump’s taunting “Pocahontas” slur), Warren emerged as the candidate that people simply liked. Even on television, her energy is infectious, and when she became legendarily willing to stand and chat for hours with supporters taking photos with her, she came into the Fall as the candidate on the rise, with a clear path to the presidency.
If the conventional view were true, that is, that Democrats were simply looking for a winner around whom to rally, Senator Warren was their obvious choice. The center-right people were supposed to say, “Well, we disagree on policy in a number of ways that we usually care about; but this election is about beating Trump, and Warren is clearly a strong campaigner. We will do everything we can to support Warren, making it clear that although her policies are to the left of our preferred approach, she is anything but a leftist, and we can live quite comfortably in her world.”
That, in any case, is what the center-right people expect the center-left people to do. Joe Biden’s wife had an infamous moment in which she told her husband’s intramural detractors to “swallow a little bit” in the name of winning and vote for her husband. Why let relatively minor disagreements over policy matter too much?
But Biden’s supporters among the party’s leadership structure (and donors) apparently did not receive that memo—or, more likely, simply did not believe that they have to play by the same rules. Rarely has there been a more concerted effort to tear down a candidate than last year’s full-on attack from the Democratic elite against Warren.
She was accused of hypocrisy because she decided that she no longer felt it right to accept big-money donations. (Having a genuine change of heart is apparently inconceivable.) As I discussed in another Verdict column last Fall, they held her to a ridiculous standard of specificity about her Medicare-for-all proposal to which they would never have held any other candidate. And they sent out their big-name orthodox economists to make half-baked arguments about the revenue estimates for her wealth tax proposals. This not only shored up Biden but allowed fallback center-right candidates like the ever-opportunistic Pete Buttigieg to emerge from the pack.
There was even talk that some wealthy Democratic donors were going to flip to supporting Trump if Warren were to become the nominee. To be clear, this is not merely a matter of “putting away their wallets” but actually supporting the greatest threat to the U.S. Constitution that we have seen in our lifetimes. We now know their priorities.
Although I hope that I have adequately communicated my frustration and anger with the way the center-right has responded to Elizabeth Warren—full disclosure: I did finally decide to endorse Warren’s candidacy last month—I also now think that this is healthy (even though her opponents’ tactics are more than a bit hackish). This is the debate we should be having.
If the Democrats are afraid to tax the rich at a time of epic inequality, then we ought to know that. If they are afraid to do anything that might alienate the largely-mythical centrist voters who are leaning toward Trump but could be convinced to support a minimalist Biden-like approach, then the party should be clear about that. I hope that they choose otherwise, but at least we will know what the party wants to be.
And unlike some on the center-right, those of us on the center-left will enthusiastically support whoever emerges from this fight. I have deep reservations about Biden, Buttigieg, and even Amy Klobuchar, but they are plausible presidents. So are Warren and Bernie Sanders. And so are the rest of the lower tier, at least compared to Trump (a low bar indeed).
Having a ferociously fought battle over matters of substance can feel uncomfortable, especially when the stakes are this high. But this is what should be happening. I hope that the center-left prevails, but either way, I am glad that the Democrats are hashing this out so aggressively.